All photographs copyright Alec Soth
Alec Soth masterfully weaves nuanced stories of people and places that show intimate glimpses into fascinating worlds. Viewing his books feels like slowly peeling an orange as you reveal small parts of the lush center below.
Born in 1969 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Soth’s main focus has been on the overlooked middle America, the fly-by places, small towns, and forgotten people, as he captures their dreams and disappointments, their complex views and feelings.
While each body of work stands on its own, it’s important to look at the progression that Soth made through these portfolios, both conceptually and technically. Soth is famous for using an 8×10 camera, but he has actually switched between multiple formats, from large format, to medium format, to digital SLR depending on the needs of the project.
“I’m less interested in the incredible image or the iconic moment – they come along or they don’t. Anyone can take a great picture, but editing those pictures and, more importantly for me, putting them together and having them resonate off each other – that’s the ultimate task. It’s the body of images I’m most interested in.”
Sleeping by the Mississippi
Soth’s first published book was Sleeping by the Mississippi, which gained wide acclaim. He traveled along the Mississippi River from his home state of Minnesota all the way to New Orleans. “I live near the beginning of the Mississippi and have always felt a pull to it. I used to run away when I was 5 or 6, pack a suitcase with books and run away from home. I’d only get a few blocks but it was the whole Huck Finn process, where the north is home and the south symbolizes the exotic.”
“I remember when I got to the river, I thought, ‘I can go on the Minnesota side or the Wisconsin side – either way it’s full of possibilities.’ And the making of the work was just so magical. It felt like every time I knocked on a door, it opened. And it’s never been like that since.”
The river became the link, and you can sense a subtle connection between each person, despite the subjects and places being so wildly different. Just as important is the connection that Soth makes with his subjects, even though as he admits, he was never comfortable photographing people. Yet he still found a way to connect with his subjects, to inquire about them, and to listen to them, and his subjects rewarded him with their poses.
Soth asked his subjects to write down their dreams, and at the end of the book he gives us fascinating information about the subjects and their dreams, but it’s the idea of the dream that often shines through in his subjects’ gazes, or in the fascinating backgrounds that Soth captures. Soth’s landscapes and backgrounds are complex scenes, yet similarly intimate. They feel like hidden places, both forgotten and special. These are places that you often feel like you shouldn’t be seeing, that you are privileged to be able to get a glimpse of.
Technically, the 8×10 camera seems to aid this process as well. You can see the subjects become comfortable and introspective with the question asked to them and with the time taken to set up the camera and scene. The subjects recede into themselves.
Soth used a similar formula for his second project, capturing the area surrounding Niagara Falls, the famous tourist and marriage destination.
“Niagara is part of American mythology. It’s a place of romance, where people go to get married, but when I got there my view of the place totally changed. The American side is economically devastated. It’s bleak.”
“The longer I spent there, the darker it got. Part of that is down to me and my nature, part of it is down to the place itself. But I also find a real beauty in that darkness.”
Soth shows stark contrasts between the bleak surroundings and the irony of the symbols of romance shown throughout the book, such as a sign for the Happiness Inn, a heart-shaped bath, or two kissing swans folded on a cheap hotel bed. The area itself encompasses the idea of romance, simultaneously showing optimism, beauty, reality, bleakness, and despair. He similarly shows this in photos of couples and individuals, their faces alluding to complex feeling beneath the surface.
“What fascinated me is how this crashing waterfall is a metaphor for that crazed intensity of new love, and how it’s like this force that peters out. Niagara Falls is also where a lot of people go to commit suicide.”
Like Sleeping by the Mississippi, the photos lure you in, while the end of the book gives you deep context, where Soth talks about his subjects and shares their love letters. “To gather the love letters I would ask people I met in bars or donut shops if they had any old love letters I could have. If you’re in a donut shop and you ask someone at the next table for their old love letters, they are going to look at you like you’re a freak and mock you. But every once in a while, someone would have them and be happy to share them.”
As said in one of the letters, “I love you but you’ve become a piece of shit.”
In Broken Manual, Soth captured people looking to disappear, to escape their lives. He photographed hermits, survivalists, runaways, and the places they escaped to.
In his research, Soth explored pamphlets and instruction manuals on how to escape and structured the book in this way, almost like a manual. But the reality of escaping is shown to be much more bleak and depressing than the fantasy of it.
“The inspiration for the ‘manual’ aspect of the project came from buying all these ‘How to Disappear’ books online – they’re so absurd. They’re such ridiculous little pamphlets, which would be completely ineffective if you really wanted to run away. So there is a real dark-comedy aspect to the work.”
“The reason I wanted to become a photographer was to spend time alone. It’s funny, because for the last year and a half I’ve been trying to learn how to work alone again. The psychological elements of working alone are so profound.”
Soth at the time was having his own feelings of escaping after establishing himself in the art world, and this project is almost like his research into the idea, and the resulting reality that it might not be all that its cracked up to seem.
“Like I said, I’m in a very different headspace now. But at that time, I’d just done Niagara, and I felt like I was finally ‘established’ or whatever. And for some reason, when I crossed that threshold, I became frustrated with the medium of photography – I didn’t want to repeat myself, and I didn’t want to give in to marketplace pressures. Maybe pretentiously, in retrospect, I was thinking along the lines of, ‘I don’t want to be a photographer; I want to be an artist’. It was partly that, and also maybe domestic life was wrapped into it too – kids reach a certain age, everything becomes a little chaotic, and I was a bit like, ‘Get me out of here!’ I always joke that Broken Manual was my ‘midlife crisis’ project.”
“I really was having a midlife crisis. I would actually come to this room – ‘The Cave’ – get really drunk, and work on these things. I’d write, and do drawings, and so on. But a lot of that stuff is a blur to me, and it’s kind of embarrassing now.”
In Songbook, Soth focused on the idea of community life in America, but the style of the photographs depart significantly from his previous projects.
To fully ingratiate himself to these communities, Soth cultivated himself as a community newspaper photographer and traveled throughout the country attending meetings, gatherings, festivals, and dances. He used a smaller camera, often illuminating the images entirely with a flash, and focused on fleeting, intimate moments.
The photographs portray crashing forces between the longing for community yet the urge to stand apart from the crowd. His subjects seem yearning, yet struggling, to connect.
I Know How Furiously Your Heart is Beating
After staying away from photography for a year, Soth both escaped and returned to his roots. With a large format camera, Soth masterfully enters the lives of a variety of individuals around the world and shows them and their surroundings intimately.
“What I was trying to do was not to have a formula. I wasn’t trying to do what I’d done in the past, which was simply drive around and pluck people that I find interesting and curious. So this time, I decided to go somewhere, usually on an invitation—someone would invite me to give a lecture or whatnot—and I would find somebody in that region who could help me find other people. And like you, they would ask: ‘Well, what are you looking for?’ At first, I would say, ‘It’s hard to say. I’m looking for people with a certain kind of relationship to physical space.’ Eventually, people would just send me photographs, and then I would respond and negotiate a time for a sitting in advance. The more pictures I made, the more I could show examples of other people that I’d photographed for this project. and thus show that I wasn’t looking for one particular age or gender or class or occupation.”
Yet one thing Soth removed from this project is an aspect that he has been known for, his portrayal of middle America. Here the single woven thread is the people themselves.
“The people that I photographed allowed me to photograph them because they didn’t want to be alone, and the truth is I didn’t want to be alone making the pictures.”
Alec Soth Quotes:
“Photography is a very lonely medium. There’s a kind of beautiful loneliness in voyeurism. And that’s why I’m a photographer.” – Alec Soth
“[Photography is] very related to poetry. It’s suggestive and fragmentary and unsatisfying in a lot of ways. It’s as much about what you leave out as what you put in.” – Alec Soth
“If you want to be a creative person, then you’re gonna have to be creative in how you put your career together. There isn’t a path. Part of the creativity is making your path.” – Alec Soth
“I fell in love with the process of taking pictures, with wandering around finding things. To me, it feels like a kind of performance. The picture is a document of that performance.” – Alec Soth
“I always say that photography’s closest cousin is poetry because of the way it sparks your imagination and leaves gaps for the viewer to fill in.” – Alec Soth
“I’m a project-based photographer; I think in narrative terms, the way a writer thinks of a book, or a filmmaker a film.” – Alec Soth
“Photography’s future is infinite and bright. It’s growing exponentially, so that’s great, but for me as a practitioner, that exponential growth makes it even more problematic. And so for me, it’s got me more engaged with storytelling.” – Alec Soth
“I’ve never been comfortable photographing people I know, myself included. I guess I prefer the mystery of strangers.” – Alec Soth
“I’m like the annoying guy in the street.” – Alec Soth
“I admire photographers that don’t need a destination. In some ways, street photography is like that. There’s a quality of wanderlust for sure in my work, but I need a destination.” – Alec Soth
“Photography is so stupid. It’s so obvious… Everyone can do it, and yet certain moments have this magic. And that’s what you’re always looking for. I make the analogy with popular music. In some ways, it’s so easy to write a pop song, but why do certain ones do that thing that touches a nerve and makes them a hit? It’s such a subtle little mix of elements. It drives me crazy because I’ll often go out and think it’s super easy – you can just point the camera anywhere and make a picture – and it just doesn’t capture it at all. To this day, it’s really mysterious to me.” – Alec Soth
“It’s so easy to have the perception of America as just this – freeways,’ he said. ‘But only two minutes away you can find all sorts of crazy stuff. It sometimes feels like America’s flattening out, all becoming Starbucks. But it hasn’t yet. There are also wonderful, rich, nuanced places, and they’re all so different – vastly different.” – Alec Soth
“I find myself using music metaphors all the time, but this is too perfect, I feel like. Digital downloading is like photographs online. It’s great, they’re available, you can see lots of different work, but it’s a limited experience of the form. A book is like an album. You don’t have to have a million dollars to be able to buy it, you have to save some money, you have to buy your album, then you take it home, and you put it on your turntable.” – Alec Soth